More About the Author
Robert Barsky's forthcoming book on undocumented immigrants is called "Undocumented Immigrants in an Era of Arbitrary Law: The Flight and Plight of Persons Deemed 'Illegal'" (Routledge Law), http://www.routledgementalhealth.com/books/details/9781138849488
"The Case for Open Borders", a talk recorded in Denver, CO, 2014: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JkQDUcTUDeA, followed by Q&A: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUjKFOMNavw
"Noam Chomsky, Dissent and Immigrant Rights", recorded in Denver, CO, 2014: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GRT-fWiJZJM, followed by Q&A: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yEtg_m7AQbk
Robert Barsky discusses Noam Chomsky and Zellig Harris in Fort Collins, CO, 2014:
"On College", filmed in Toulouse, France, 2013: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEA_IbQYf60
New Books on Language interview, March 2012
Berfrois Interview, August 2011
Intellectuals in Public Life, Barsky's talk for the "Thinking out of the Lunch Box" series, Nashville Public Library, 2007
Barsky book launch for the Chomsky biography at the Noam Chomsky Reading Group, Washington DC, 1997: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8SbKZMo420
Vanderbilt NEWS: CAMPUS LIVING
Professor Spotlight: Robert Barsky
By HELEN LI
Published Sep. 10, 2009.
Professor Robert Barsky is a member of the French, Italian and English departments of Vanderbilt University. Born and raised in Montreal, Barsky graduated from Brandeis University before moving to Switzerland to pursue a career in skiing. After returning to Canada, he received his doctorate in comparative literature from McGill University and then, following several years of research with the National Institute of Scientific Research in Montreal, did postdoctoral work on legal argumentation at the Free University of Brussels. The founding editor of the AmeriQuests journal, Barsky has also published several notable works, including The Chomsky Effect: A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory Tower
1. What sort of influences did you have as a child?
I grew up in Montréal in the '60s and '70s, in a mostly Anglophone enclave in a very happy time, but surrounded by an atmosphere of constant political tension. Teachers and students in my high school years were regularly "on strike" against various representatives of authority, which allowed us more time for the outdoor sports on which we all thrived. Then, in 1976, the Parti québécois came to power, overturning Anglo power and driving virtually everyone I knew out of the province. The government was decidedly socialist, and it pioneered new relations with the elite, including multinational corporations; then, from around 1978 right up to the late '80s, we went into a terrible recession, and although most people blamed these divisive political moves of the majority for the suffering, in fact, many of the forward-looking social policies aided the population more than we could have understood at the time. The legacy of these legislations, in terms of women's rights, the treatment of minorities, assistance to the marginal, the perceived role of art, and so forth is a positive outcome of some very difficult years.
2. What was your first job?
My dad is a shopkeeper and entrepreneur, and we all worked for him beginning as early on as I can remember. But I also delivered newspapers before school, through driving snowstorms and in freezing weather which prevails in Quebec through much of the year, which provided me with unusual independence and a real drive. I can quite literally still feel the strain of dragging 120 newspapers stuffed into three bags on my shoulders through snowdrifts and on fields of ice we like to call roads.
3. Many students are probably unaware that you spent a good deal of time traveling across Europe, pursuing a career as a professional skier. Can you name some interesting experiences that you had during this time period?
My objective was to be a professional mogul skier, after having been on a touring radio station-sponsored team in Montreal and after having competed, rather less successfully I must say, in slalom events for my college. After university I packed up my skis, boots and jacket and flew to London, since that was the least expensive flight, with a return ticket for 12 months later, and with around 900 Canadian dollars in my pocket. I had no idea where to go, but landed up, fortuitously, in a little but amazing ski village called Verbier, in Switzerland. As I moved towards my last few dollars, I miraculously found a job as a bartender in a very fancy Swiss hotel in my village; this permitted me to ski from dawn until 4 p.m., when I had to ski back to the apartment, change into my tuxedo, and "skitch" (hang onto the back bumpers of passing cars) to my hotel to work in what turned out to be a very intense environment where fancy wealthy people came to stay, on ski vacations. The pressure to perform in the hotel where presidents of Volvo and Saab, not to mention Bjorn Borg, came, was incredible, and I had absolutely no experience when I started. I didn't even know the names of herbal teas, for example, so when someone would order one I'd be frantically searching through the names of the hundreds of wines on our incredible list to see what the person wanted -- and this after a day of risking my life in treacherous terrain at 10,000 feet; we'd quite literally spend the day jumping off cliffs the size of apartment buildings, and hiking up areas of the Alps that were totally uncharted. I saw a documentary film recently about people who were doing that near our village and I realized that we were pioneering an area that is now known as "extreme skiing." Lots of our friends were returned home in body bags, or with terrible injuries; it was a miracle some of us survived unscathed.
4. What did you research for your PhD? And how did you become interested in this topic?
I was finishing my M.A. thesis on Lord Byron and Catastrophism when I took a job as a transcriber for a new transcription company to help pay the bills, in preparation for a Ph.D., which was to be on the 19th century Russian novel, especially the work of Dostoevsky. The work turned out to be rather strange; I was taught to use my first computer, and was plugged into a transcribing machine which, as it turned out, played recordings of hearings for Convention refugee claimants, people who had been persecuted in their country of origin and had come to Canada to request status. The narratives were horrendous, with long and elaborate descriptions of torture, and I listened to them and typed them up even as the Canadian government was preparing new restrictive laws to reduce the flow of refugees to the country. Repulsed by the way that this transcription company was practicing this business, and upset by the misinformation that was being spewed about refugees, I wrote a long document that I gave to the Canadian Broadcast Corporation. This turned into a rather large international story, and the eventual effects of my actions led to the closing down of all private transcription companies (this work had traditionally been done by government workers), the abandonment of these new laws, and new and much fairer ways of conducting face-to-face refugee hearings. As a result, I wrote my Ph.D. thesis and my first book on this process as regards language theory, and subsequently wrote another book and many other works about human rights, refugee law, immigration and so forth.
5. What group do you identify with the most?
I don't identify with a particular group but with some individuals from a vast array of worlds, sometimes academic, sometimes radical, sometimes athletic, often in some way artistic. I don't do well with orthodoxies, forced or self-imposed illegitimate restrictions, or unauthentic behavior. I have lots of old, old friends, an incredible wife, Marsha, and amazing children and stepchild.
6. What is one thing you carry around with you wherever you go?
I almost always carry my motorcycle helmet, since I only drive cars when I have to, and I love knowing that I can call my wife or kids from anywhere, so the cell phone is essential as well.
7. How do you get around campus or around town?
Walking, particularly on a campus as gorgeous as Vandy's, is a joy, and indeed I love to walk all over the place. When I need to pick up the pace, I drive one of my two motorcycles, which makes each trip, no matter how long, how cold, how wet, how treacherous, an adventure.
8. What do you like to do in your free time?
I love to cook, and have become addicted, after years of working as a sauté chef in Cape Cod to pay for my studies, to baking. Most of my days are blissfully spent reading, playing sports and cooking, probably in that order.
9. What is your favorite type of food?
Whatever we cook together at home; we make everything from scratch using organic and whenever possible local foods. And there have been few things we've made together in our house that wasn't the best food I've every tasted -- except perhaps what Marsha and I ate together on our honeymoon in St. Barth's!
10. How would you describe the journal AmeriQuests?
It's a journal about border crossings, and the quest for America and the Americas. Borders from this perspective include all boundaries, including disciplinary lines or delineated states of consciousness and while it focuses on the Americas, it is also about "America," the absolute but by definition unobtainable objective.
11. What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your teaching career?
I never fancied myself a "teacher," or not solely; I graduated with a Ph.D. in 1992 and continued my work as a researcher and a writer until being offered a job in university in 1996. As such, I had published three books by the time I started working full time at the university, so teaching always felt like an outpouring of the research work I was doing, and was therefore always pleasurable. I love teaching, it's an incredible gift to be able to speak publicly about the things I care about.
12. What is your favorite place in Nashville?
For the city itself, I'd have to say Shelby Park: a blissful setting in the heart of the matter. But there's a lot to love about this town, especially in its quirky spots, and its incredible parks.
13. If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?
Lord Byron. I don't imagine we'd eat much, so I'd order lots of fine wine to allow free flow of what I'm sure would be outrageous conversation.
14. What classes do you teach?
I'm fortunate to teach in different realms -- French, English and Jewish Studies -- and I have seldom taught the same course twice since I tend to teach the notions I'm grappling with in my research. Most of my work has something to do with language studies, creativity and literature, so this year I'm teaching a "theory" course on the questions begged by some of my favorite literature, a course of Émile Zola, a course on the beat generation and its relationship to France and French writers, and a survey course in French.
15. What advice would you give students to make the most of their four years at Vanderbilt?
We used to go skiing in Montreal every weekend and on every day off, and whenever we went there was some question as to whether or not we'd return in one piece. I followed the same plan in Switzerland, with the idea that every moment could be saturated with unexpected creativity if I would let myself "go there." This has been a good (if perilous) route for me in the Academy, because as students, and as professors, in a place as truly amazing as Vanderbilt, there is tremendous freedom to explore, discuss, engage, take intellectual risks. Four years seems like such a long time, but it's not, and there is so much that is offered in a university setting as privileged as our own; as such, I'd vigorously pursue amazing professors, accept invitations to explore the many strange events that Nashville offers, fully engage with the studies you are doing in order to go deep, and do what you are learning to love, as opposed to what you think you should be doing towards some pre-determined end.